Synopsis: Best friends Sophie and Agatha find themselves on opposing sides of an epic battle when they’re swept away into an enchanted school where aspiring heroes and villains are trained to protect the balance between Good and Evil.
Stars: Sophia Anne Caruso, Sofia Wylie, Laurence Fishburne, Michelle Yeoh, Jamie Flatters, Kit Young, Peter Serafinowicz, Kerry Washington, Charlize Theron
Director: Paul Feig
Running Length: 148 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: As the story goes, author Soman Chainani grew up watching Disney movies on the small TV his family owned. All that he knew of fairytale lore and legend, he learned from watching these celebrated (but often, uh, Disney-fied) retellings of classic stories passed down throughout time. When Chainani was in college, he was exposed to the origins of his favorite fairy tales as he read the works of authors like The Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault, and Hans Christian Andersen. Dark and twisted messages regarding morality and conscience permeated these tomes, surprising Chainani, who was used to seeing the characters refracted through a much more sanitized lens.
Eventually, Chainani would pen the 2013 novel The School for Good and Evil blending his childhood memories and college learnings. A worldwide bestseller, The School for Good and Evil spawned five sequels, each earning praise from critics and readers for their creative narrative and world-building. All present to the bookworm as hefty reading assignments, with the first novel coming in around 550 paperback pages. It’s no wonder that at two hours and twenty-eight minutes, director Paul Feig’s new Netflix film based on that novel is epically long and respectably ambitious.
A sprawling chronicle of the School for Good and Evil, we’d be here forever if I were to attempt the kind of plot analysis I usually do. Hence, skimming the surface for the essential highlights of the episodic fantasy is helpful. Twin brothers Rhian & Rafal (Kit Young) represent the Good and Evil that exist in the world. Locked in constant brotherly battle, one cannot live without the other, and Good always seems to triumph over its more enterprising counterpart. When Evil makes a play for control, it creates a schism that sets the two factions at odds, and their School is truly divided between the Evil (aka the Nevers, who don’t get a happy ending) and the Good (or the Evers, who we all know live happily ever after).
Sometime later, in the village of Gavaldon, two best friends, Sophie (Sophia Anne Caruso, Broadway’s Beetlejuice) and Agatha (Sofia Wylie), are intelligent teens seen as outcasts for their desire to want something more than their poor provincial lives. Sophie sees herself living in the pages of the dreamy fantasies she picks up from her local bookstore, while Agatha has the gift for mixing potions and other witchy business. It’s Sophie’s dream to go to the School for Good and Evil, and when a wish cast into a special tree comes true, she winds up bringing Agatha along. However, things don’t go as planned, and when it’s time to be placed in schools, Sophie gets dropped into the Evil School and Agatha the Good.
The bulk of the film follows the young ladies as they try to prove to the headmaster (Laurence Fishburne, The Mule) and Deans in both schools, Lady Lesso (Charlize Theron, Bombshell) and Professor Dovey (Kerry Washington, Django Unchained), that they need to be switched back. Yet the more they stick around, meet their fellow students, and explore the powers they come to harness, the more they see that perhaps the selection process wasn’t so flawed after all. When a handsome prince (Jamie Flatters) comes between them, friendship is tested, as is loyalty to the true spirit of goodness that exists in us all.
Starting with Bridesmaids in 2011, director Feig has consistently created movies centered around women who feel inclusive of everyone. He’s directed big-budget entertainment before, but nothing approaches the level seen in The School for Good and Evil. Visually, the movie is dazzling with special effects that seem to spring out from the screen with vibrant colors and a shimmer. It’s restrained enough not to feel like the actors are living in a cartoon but fantastical in composition to place you in a world far removed from anything you’ve seen before. The clothing may be a bit costume party at times but complemented with interesting make-up (one startling transformation at the end is mighty impressive), it tends to work with cohesion. A lesser director could let all of these technical elements get in the way of the story, but Feig knows how to achieve a measured balance.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have some heavy hitters like Theron, Washington, and Fishburne to rely on, either. While the stars are legitimate supporting players in contrast to Caruso and Wylie’s leading roles, each leaves a distinct impression while onscreen. Despite giving off mega Wicked vibes throughout (try to put that musical out of your brain until that arrives in 2024), the two competing magic-makers are matched well and should each find a nice fanbase out of their work. Caruso was a powerhouse onstage when I saw her in Beetlejuice, but it can come off a bit too knowing here. Wylie’s character is designed to be likable, and it’s not hard for the actress to come out on top either.
With more books to adapt, I’m hoping this isn’t the last visit to the School for anyone involved. Being so episodic, I’m curious why this wasn’t made into a straight series for Netflix because four episodes would have allowed the story to move along at a slightly less breathless pace. I’m guessing the star salaries worked out better for a longer film, but there were more nooks and crannies of School I would have liked to explore. As presented, attending The School for Good and Evil is an excellent elective homework assignment.